Head in the clouds

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It used to be, if you said someone “had his head in the clouds,” you meant his mind was elsewhere; he wasn’t paying attention.

Nowadays, when people speak of “the cloud,” they are talking about computers, websites, software and digital storage that are maintained elsewhere, but available for us to use through the Internet. This amalgam of cloud services has become the place where many of us store our personal information, family photos, financial and tax history, and more.

Unfortunately, some of us have our heads in the clouds, too.

Let me take a step back and explain what I mean.

Many aspects of our lives have become “digital” today. We don’t take pictures using cameras with film. We capture images on our smartphones or digital cameras and view them there, or on our computers, when we like.

We don’t do our taxes by hand and keep loads of files. We use a software program that makes it far simpler and keeps our data from one year to the next.

Yes, we know our phones and computers can be hacked. But how likely is that, we ask ourselves? And we can, if we choose, utilize various means of protecting our data with passwords, firewalls, security software and the like.

But what if we are running out of computer or smartphone memory? We are frequently urged to move our digital files into the cloud. Uploading our photos to a website not only lets us delete them from our personal devices. It offers additional benefits:  We can easily allow friends (or even strangers) to view our photos at will.

The same is often true of our personal medical and financial information. As we get older, we might be asked to keep a list of our medications and doctors, our living will and powers of attorney, on a website that can be shared with certain family members and medical professionals, so the people who care about us (and may one day need to care for us) can have ready access to the information they would need should we become incapacitated.

As a result, we might become careless about maintaining our paper records or our own computer.

Businesses (and governments as well) make use of online services and websites to maintain information about their customers, their employees, their stockholders, etc.

In addition, they frequently use the cloud in carrying out  essential functions: our nation’s electric grid and long-distance service rely heavily on satellites and the Internet, as do many aspects of our military communications. 

The individual and societal benefits are great. But the risks are also very serious.

We have not yet developed a way to keep digital information — whether on our computers or in the cloud — truly safe from hackers or disgruntled employees who want to steal our data and disseminate, manipulate or sell it to others. 

The victims of these thefts are not just ordinary individuals who lack technical knowledge. They include Target, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the Democratic National Committee, and even the National Security Agency. And as for our satellites, China has demonstrated (using one of its own) that they can be destroyed by a missile.

As individuals, we cannot really do anything about this pervasive shift on the part of business and government, other than to continually press our legislators and other leaders to secure these systems as much as possible, and develop backups that can function in an emergency.

But as individuals, we don’t have to make ourselves needlessly vulnerable. We should not trust the cloud to be the only place where we access or store important information.

As long as we maintain either a physical copy of our data, or a digital backup on a hard drive or flash drive, it may make sense to maintain a backup of important information in the cloud. After all, a house fire can destroy all our precious tax records and photo albums, too.

But sometimes there is no way to hold onto a backup of the data we upload, or to retrieve the reports that software in the cloud creates for us.

I speak from experience. Some years ago, the Beacon’s first website, may it rest in peace, was part of a national senior organization that created and hosted it — together with those of many other senior publications — on their website. In exchange, we advertised the parent site in the Beacon.

One day, the Beacon’s website suddenly disappeared. When I called, panicked, to find out what had happened, I was told that, unfortunately, there had been a “catastrophic failure” of our site. I noted that the rest of their website, on which we had been housed, seemed just fine, and then I asked about their backup. Oh, he said, “believe it or not” (and I didn’t), their backup failed at the same time, meaning we could no longer access any of the material we had painstakingly uploaded over a period of years onto their site.

Of course what really had failed was their honesty and their will to continue providing the service. With not so much as a day’s notice, or any effort to back up our information or provide it to us in another form, they closed us down. It took months and tremendous effort to create a new website from scratch.

This experience gave me a taste of what it would be like were the Internet to be “down” for a considerable period of time, or were a site in the cloud to be hacked and disabled. As a result, I am highly reluctant to rely on any software or storage that exists solely in the cloud.

I am not a Luddite. I wouldn’t recommend avoiding or pulling out from all the beneficial software and cloud platforms that perform highly useful functions at a reasonable cost.

But we need to understand the risks involved, and take whatever precautions we can to back up our important information. We also need to protect ourselves by using strong passwords, and think twice before uploading to the cloud any information that could cause us severe harm were it to fall into the hands of unscrupulous people.

We can choose to store some information in the cloud. But we shouldn’t be walking around with our heads up there, too.

If you have been a victim of hacking or identity theft, please write to us to share your story.